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'Culture Shock' looks at art controversies

Sunday, January 23, 2000

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

It's been said that a writer is responsible for what he writes, not what is read.

So when Mark Twain writes the word "nigger" hundreds of times in his 1885 anti-racism novel "Huckleberry Finn," is he responsible for the hundreds of jabs of pain felt by a black high school student who reads the book a century later?

He sure is, argue a real-life mother and her teen-age daughter in the first installment of the PBS series "Culture Shock," a documentary look at four historical examples of controversial art.

It doesn't matter that Twain was the first novelist to convey the humanity of a black man, argue the mother/daughter team who fought the book in the black girl's Arizona high school: The character of Jim is a buffoon, he's constantly referred to by the N-word, and "Huckleberry Finn," the mother argues, should not be required reading in high school.

But a handful of professors and writers - many black - counter during the program that in order to highlight the inhumanity of racism, Twain had to present an accurate portrait of it. That might aggrieve modern-day African-Americans, the intellectuals acknowledge, but the hurt is really caused by the continued presence of racism today, not by the book. In other words, don't shoot the messenger.

Who's right? Surprisingly even-handed, the show lets the viewer decide. Its only bias lies in the extra time allotted to Twain defenders.

Between the arguments, we visit modern-day Hannibal, Mo., to hear how the locals feel about the perceived racism in "Huck," and we're given insight into Twain's positive relationship with blacks and his dismay over the controversy surrounding his novel - which originally was criticized for Huck's lack of morals than for its use of the N-word.

But the program, airing at 9 p.m. Wednesday on WQED, should have paid more attention to the political and moral climate that gave rise to criticism of the book, both today and when it was first published.

So, too, should the subsequent program in the "Culture Shock" series have looked more at the why rather than the what of controversy. The program, to air Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., is about Manet's "Olympia," an 1865 painting of a nude woman that was so realistic it led Paris to worry for its citizens' morals.

The program wasted time showing a modern-day artist re-creating the nude scene in preparation for painting it, and we certainly didn't need all the shots of men ogling women on the street (as if we didn't know about the power of women's bodies).

The strongest of the four programs is the one on "inappropriate" American movies of the 1920s and '30s (to air Feb. 2 at 9 p.m.). How many of us know about Joe Breen, the zealous Catholic moralist who forced Hollywood producers to eliminate from their movies everything from nudity to childbirth to glorified murder scenes?

Breen successfully enforced the "Hays Code," which outlined what was inappropriate, by gaining support from Catholics who thought Mae West double-entendres and Jean Harlow screen kisses would ruin America.

It's interesting to watch the program in light of efforts by politicians today to rid movies of violence that goes way beyond the quaint shootings in 1932's "Scarface."

Similarly, the fourth installment, which is about jazz and will air Feb. 2 at 10 p.m., successfully draws parallels - and points out differences - between the vilification of jazz when it was born at the beginning of the 20th century, and today's criticism of rap, another style of music with African-American origins.

Aside from controversy, the four "Culture Shock" programs don't have much in common, although the opening credits of each program show a roguish young man dramatically spray painting "culture shock" on a wall.

That constitutes the only sensationalism in a series that admirably takes a cool-headed approach to art that has been victimized by historical hotheads.

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